Walter Mencken 11 a.m., May 24
Spooning at Underbelly
In October, David and I traveled to Japan on an epic quest to sample ramen made by the “Tokyo Ramen Gods” he’d read about in Lucky Peach, David Chang’s (of New York’s Momofuku Noodle Bar fame) new magazine. With their noodles still fresh in my mind, I was eager to try Underbelly, the new ramen joint in Little Italy.
(Here's a short video I made from our recent trip to Tokyo):
I can’t remember who first told me that Underbelly “doesn’t do spoons.” A ramen joint without spoons is like a steakhouse without knives. Doesn’t happen. That’s like serving up burgers and fries without ketchup, which is just -- wait a sec… These are the same guys behind the Neighborhood –- a burger joint, with an odd disdain for a classic condiment despite offering chipotle puree and aioli. As if the most popular of burger pairings -- that oh-so-satisfying, tangy, tomato-vinegar-based sauce – is somehow more plebeian than a sauce made from oil, eggs, and garlic. Are these guys just effing with people?
I decided to try their new place anyway, despite my irritation upon learning that, for whatever “cool” reason they’d come up with, the owners were again denying customers a basic accompaniment to an old standard. Perhaps they shrewdly concluded that their controversial maneuvers would get people talking about the place?
My first order of business was to hit up Marukai and buy some stylin’ Japanese ramen spoons to take with me -- the spoon is an important part of the ramen experience. I know this, because I learned it directly from the very Tokyo Ramen Gods Chang honors in his magazine, and from every other ramen house we visited on our Japan excursion. From traditional to cutting edge, each ramen house remained consistent in at least one respect – all bowls came with both a pair of chopsticks, and a damn spoon.
The first words out of my mouth upon entering Underbelly were, “Okay, what’s the deal? Why no spoons?” I immediately felt bad about my tone, because it was plain to see from their disposition that this staff was nice -- that sweet, just-want-to-help-out kind of nice that no one can argue with.
Here’s the gist, as I understood it – “one of the owners studied in Japan, and it’s a compliment to the chef to slurp the soup, hence no spoons.” I’ll be the one who decides whether I compliment the chef or not. They might as well parade customers through the kitchen and force them to bow to the chef. That aside, it’s clear that the standard line fed patrons as a verbal amuse bouche must have been passed down to the staff via a game of telephone. Proprietor Arsalun Tafazoli studied in Hong Kong (it’s on the press release), and Underbelly is meant “to be a tribute to traditional Japanese ramen houses.” But traditional ramen houses USE SPOONS.
Here’s where they get it right: in Japan, as in China, slurping one’s noodles (within reason) is considered a compliment to the chef, as is finishing the entire bowl of ramen; it is also common for one to lift the bowl at the end, and drink the remaining goodness straight from it.
Here’s why they’re wrong. Slurping can be accomplished equally well with a spoon as without. Most Americans know this, having been chided as kids by our parents for doing so. Furthermore, the spoon is useful for the following reasons: to allow for seasoning and tasting of the broth at the start of the meal (Underbelly provides the traditional spice mix and sauces to flavor the broth, but no manner in which to adjust it to one’s taste without sticking your head into a bowl of scalding liquid); and, as one typically uses the right hand to manage the chopsticks, the left holds the spoon beneath, to catch the drippings and keep the noodle ends out of the soup after you lift them. Go to Japan, watch people eat, you’ll see what I mean.
But enough ranting (thank you, I feel better now). What about the place? What about the food? I have to admit, I loved it.
I got the tonkotsu, which is a pork broth style ramen. The flavor of the broth (which I was able to taste with the spoon I brought) had depth, the noodles had excellent texture, and the perfectly soft-boiled “hanjuku” egg had been cooked and soaked in the traditional sweetened soy sauce marinade.
David ordered the “Belly of the Beast” bowl, which is stated to include oxtail dumpling, smoked brisket, and hoisin glazed short rib, though when delivered it seemed to be missing the short rib. David agreed with my assessment of the noodles, and enjoyed his soup, especially the excellent quality, thick-cut pieces of brisket and the hanjuku egg (though this one was a bit too sweet for his taste). He also found the oxtail dumplings to be a bit bland, but overall, David was happy and satisfied with his bowl and thought that its $12 price was fair.
The bar is beautiful, and the selection of libations extensive, though I’ve got to wonder how some of the heavier beers or wine would pair with ramen – experiments for another day. This time I had a Mexican Coke, which I drank from the glass bottle; David had green tea from a can.
Is it as good as the best ramen I had in Japan? No. But neither is any ramen I’ve tried in San Diego (including my beloved Tajima and Yakyudori on Convoy). Will I return for seconds? Definitely. It’s in my hood, the people are nice, the space is cool, and the food is good. I just need to remember to bring my own damn spoon.
I’ll end on this note: in the words of Ivan Orkin, one of Chang’s Tokyo Ramen Gods, who I met at his restaurant a few months ago: ramen is “the only Japanese cuisine that doesn’t have a rulebook.”
(Ivan Orkin in photo, taken by me)